Big Muddy’s minimalist, modern day ‘Christmas Carol’ aims to forge a path for a Dickensian dance tradition

By on November 16, 2019

ST. LOUIS–It’s only been a week since the inaugural Big Muddy Dance Festival, and The Big Muddy Dance Company, who produced the expo, performances and workshop series in locations all over Grand Center, only just finished “Such Sweet Thunder” in October. “Such Sweet Thunder” was a collaborative effort with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Jazz St. Louis, and the Nine Network of Public Media.

But Big Muddy Dance Company doesn’t appear to slowing down any time soon, with a big season ahead for the nine-year-old company. That season officially kicked off Thursday with the company premiere of “A Christmas Carol” at the Edison Theatre.

Artistic director Brian Enos first choreographed his “A Christmas Carol,” based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, in 2017, commissioned for Grand Rapids Ballet. It wasn’t his first foray into narrative works, but the choreography he typically creates for his contemporary company, Big Muddy, tends to be more abstract.

Enos made a number of changes to his original production in setting the Dickensian classic on his contemporary dance company, which hadn’t attempted a full-length production until last year’s “Lemp Legends: A Ghost Story.” Perhaps most notably, the locale is not the grimy innards of Dickens’ 19th-century London. Instead, Big Muddy’s “A Christmas Carol” takes place in a sterile, nondescript temp agency in some nondescript city in the modern era. Enos also ditched the pointe shoes and swapped members of the Grand Rapids Orchestra, who played the score—fashioned from a Tchaikovsky playlist arranged by Brendan Hollinson—live on stage with the dancers.

Instead, Big Muddy opts for piano and string quartet relegated to the Edison’s pit. Not that that’s a bad thing—the addition of live music feels critically important to this piece, and this large cast needs all the space it can get. Enos takes full advantage of the wide-open stage in his choreography, if not the scenic design, which is a mish-mosh of minimalistic projections and IKEA-like furnishings, with Scrooge’s bed forming the centerpiece and site of most of the action for this wordless tale.

In this telling, Ebenezer Scrooge is a modern-day corporate overlord who manages productivity with fear tactics and bullying. The curtain rises on rows of folding chairs with a large corps of dancers—a combination of main company members and apprentices—for a series of phrases eluding to paper pushing, assembly line-style office work. A few characters start to emerge through this “Office Space” opening, like Scrooge’s frazzled personal assistant Carol (danced by Kelly Schneider) and the ever-optimistic Bob Cratchit (Dustin Crumbaugh). Then there’s Scrooge himself, the ballet’s leading role portrayed by a Big Muddy veteran, the charismatic Robert Poe.

Poe doesn’t strike me as a grumpy guy, but his is a boorish and bumbling Scrooge, who carries off the transformation from an isolated, unloveable man to one seeking connectivity, empathy and reconciliation quite well. His cast mates likewise excel in “A Christmas Carol’s” humorous moments, especially in Scrooge’s interactions with his bygone business partner Jacob Marley (Thomas Jacobson), a Carol Kane-inspired Ghost of Christmas Past (CJ Burroughs), Brandon Fink as a flamboyant and fabulous Ghost of Christmas Present, and a nod to the “Ring” movies with Jessie Philbrick’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

There’s a lot to love about this “Christmas Carol,” which, I hope, is meant to lay the foundation for an annual holiday show that will have as much mass appeal as the play, or “The Nutcracker.” It will likely take some time and additional resources to make this danced Dickensian classic a treasured family tradition for St. Louisans, but Big Muddy is nothing, if not up for a challenge.

The Big Muddy Dance Company’s season continues Jan. 24-25 and April 4-5 with two mixed-rep programs at the Grandel Theater. For tickets and more information, visit www.thebigmuddydanceco.org.

header photo: The Big Muddy Dance Company, photo by Carly Vanderheyden Photography




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